As we begin November, the Church celebrates All Saints Day, again highlighting the Gospel passage we know as the Beatitudes – the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Coming towards the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, this passage offers a kind of “map” or “GPS navigation” for the journey Jesus invites us to take as his disciples.
Every year, we live this discipleship journey through the course of the liturgical year. The celebration of All Saints inaugurates a “beginning of the end” of one liturgical year as we step into this liturgical year’s final month before Advent begins. At the same time, our Gospel selection suggests yet another beginning: Jesus begins teaching and training his disciples by pointing us towards the way of the Beatitudes. As we reach towards the end of one liturgical year, we are sustained into a new liturgical year – and beyond.
From year to year, our journeys are part of a larger story of discipleship. This path is well-worn by the saints and constantly stirred up by the Spirit, stretching towards past and future and deep into our present moment. In all ages, the Church continues to follow Jesus and embrace the vision he preached, which he named as the Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God (or Reign of God). Breathing in the Beatitudes can strengthen us and align our hearts with the Reign of God, as they have guided the saints who have gone before us.
In his apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), Pope Francis reminds us that we are all called to grow into sanctity and holiness, and that we live that holiness each in our own particular ways. Francis tells us that the Beatitudes give us a portrait for who Jesus is, and therefore offer what he calls an “identity card” for the communion of saints.
In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis urges us “embody” this biblical text – to see it as our path to happiness and wholeness. The Beatitudes, Francis says, invite us to “go against the flow” of our contemporary culture, and to go with with the flow of Jesus’ life, into which we have been baptized. In living the Beatitudes, we allow God to reveal to us the fullness of who we are God’s beloved children (1 John 3:2 – Second Reading for All Saints).
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.
Jesus spent his life full of the Spirit’s breath. He aerosolized everywhere he went with his teaching and healing grace, and allowed himself to breathe in all of humanity’s sorrows. But like us, he needed to find some social distance, taking his disciples to the mountaintop. Amid the turbulence of their journey, Jesus wanted to make sure that they were centered in the sustaining breath of the Spirit, thus allowing their lungs to be filled with what he called the Reign of God – the vision that he preached and lived.
This has been another year of chaos and distress, and grief, and animosity. Our hearts and imaginations have been rightly focused on important issues, including a lingering deadly worldwide pandemic, continuing racial injustice, climate change and natural disaster, desperate hunger, ongoing migration, and never-ending partisan and cultural animosity. It is right to be with Jesus in the midst of the crowds: breathing in suffering, gasping together for justice, and exhaling compassion into our world. At the same time, the way of Jesus includes practicing some spiritual hygiene lest we succumb, not only to exhaustion, but also to the cultural contagions that swirl around us (self-absorption. emotional self-righteousness, our tendency to dehumanize others, to name a few). As followers of Jesus, we are called to stay centered in the Reign of God that Jesus breathed in and out, and to discover how it is growing within us.
Then he began to speak, and taught them saying: Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
(Matthew 5: 2-3, 5)
As Pope Francis notes in Gaudete et Exsultate, these are strong words in a world which has been a place of conflict, where each person thinks that he or she has the right to dominate others. In this dominating culture, we tend to see everything in terms of winners and losers – politics, social justice movements, and even within the church. In our world, opinions and posturing have overwhelmed charity and dialogue.
The beatitude path is deeper than winners and losers. It starts with humility. Meekness and poverty of Spirit, Francis says, are not about turning our eyes to the ground – and he emphasizes that we must not be afraid to speak with boldness. Still, we are invited to recognize that the Reign of God ultimately does not grow out of our own thoughts, our own opinions, our own wills – but rather ultimately from God’s grace. And we aren’t going to recognize God’s grace in others if we take up that space with ourselves. Likewise, we aren’t going to recognize the grace growing within ourselves, or embark on the long hard work of discernment and transformation, if we think we are already perfect!
Jesus lived meekness in constant listening to his Father in prayer and in listening to the needs of God’s people, leaving room in his heart to encounter others. My fellow saints: we must re-center ourselves in practices of meekness, poverty of spirit, and humility, allowing the Reign of God to grow in us and flow into our wider culture.
Blessed are they who mourn … blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
(Matthew 5: 4, 6)
Again, with Pope Francis, can we recognize how often we avert our gaze from sickness and suffering? Even throughout the pandemic, we haven’t been able to wrap our minds and hearts around the suffering we are experiencing. We have been distracted by other concerns – whether restaurants are open or the allowed capacity of sports venues. Too often, we have hungered and thirsted for COVID-time to be over for us, instead of entering into the aching of those most suffering and those most vulnerable.
Gospel happiness is deeper than all this – it comes from touching the suffering that Jesus touched. Among other things, this is our Catholic sacramental tradition – where the anointing of a sick person can be a sign of Christ’s presence. My fellow saints: we must re-center ourselves in practices of mourning in this time, and hungering for justice beyond this time, allowing the Reign of God to grow in us and flow into our wider culture. If we can touch one another’s suffering, we can be to one another what Francis calls the “saints next door.”
Blessed are the merciful . . . the pure in heart . . .the peacemakers.
(Matthew 5: 7-9)
If there is one thing Pope Francis’ pontificate will be known for, it is mercy. Francis has reminded us that mercy is the beating heart of the Gospel, and Jesus is the face of the Father’s mercy.
As a parent with two school-aged kids, let me tell you – our family could not endure without mercy! Over and over we learn that our development as a family is not linear – more often than than not, we learn lessons together, and then we need to learn them again in a new way. We are being continuously created in the womb of God’s love, knitted together in God’s mercy.
All three of these beatitudes call for an integrated wholeness that are only activated to the extent that we allow ourselves to be transformed. As Francis says starkly, there is no beatitude that says “blessed are those who plot revenge”
Saints of God: we can allow the reign of God to grown in us, and be witnesses of mercy and peace in our world, when we admit that we’re not perfect. We’re still being shaped, and the world is too. As we sing in Psalm 24 for the Solemnity of All Saints, our lives and our planet are grounded in God’s creative love:
“The LORD’s are the earth and its fullness;PSALM 24
the world and those who dwell in it.
For he founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the rivers.”
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness… Rejoice and be glad!
(Matthew 5: 10-12)
In living the Gospel, Francis says, we cannot expect that everything will be easy, for the thirst for power and worldly interests often stands in our way.
And so here is the great irony of the beatitudes – we “rejoice” and are “glad” in what is ultimately a difficult journey – because it is God allowing us to participate in the long, slow, flourishing of the Reign of God. The cross of Jesus remains the source of our growth and sanctification, and indeed of our deepest and most enduring song of praise (Revelation 7, First Reading for Solemnity of All Saints). We follow the way of Christ along this path of cross and resurrection as the communion of saints.
“These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress;REVELATION 7
they have washed their robes
and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”
Text Copyright © 2021 Justin Huyck. All rights reserved.
A version of this reflection was originally presented as part of the Virtual Workshops Series from Liturgy Training Publications.